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Longlegs (2024)

JULY 14, 2024


If you were to scroll down a few posts, you'd see that this was actually my second viewing of Longlegs, but my first review of it. That's because last time I saw it just a few hours after hearing a friend had died suddenly, and what I hoped would be a distraction turned out to... not work like that. So it was interesting watching it "again" tonight, with scenes that I had watched only six weeks ago feel totally new to me, to the point that I even forgot what was going to happen next a few times. It sucks that I was never able to give this movie a totally clean viewing experience, as obviously its surprises didn't work as well this time around even though I was in the right headspace for it now, but I can at least say that this was the first one of Osgood Perkins' movies I enjoyed.

Indeed I just finally got around to watching I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House, his second film and, per the public record, his least loved (of his four, it's the only one with a "rotten" rating). Ordinarily the idea of Ruth Wilson, who I shamelessly swoon over, walking around a house and being in pretty much every frame of a film should be an easy sell for me, but my indifference toward Blackcoat's Daughter and Gretel & Hansel (coupled with it being a Netflix original, which nine times out of ten means it's designed for background viewing at best) had me shrugging it off until now. It was only because I was suffering another bout of insomnia that I decided to give it a chance. To its credit, it took over an hour for it to beat my sleep issues, but by that point I had already realized that it was, well, indeed an Osgood Perkins movie.

Which is to say that he has a strange knack of making a movie feel unsettling without anything actually happening. The long cuts, sound design, and off-kilter performances he gets from his actors all work in tandem to give a nearly unparalleled feeling of dread in his movies, and it's a laudable trait. Unfortunately, at least for me, after a while that feeling wears off, leaving only what is, you know, actually HAPPENING in the movie to sustain it, but in his films so far, there isn't much happening at all. Pretty Thing dove deep into this approach; outside of a few flashbacks to a murdered previous occupant of said house, the most exciting thing in the entire movie is a phone being yanked out of Wilson's hand by some invisible force.

And if you're a fan of his, fear not: Longlegs doesn't exactly do a 180 on this style. It's still pretty slow paced and has lots of scenes of people just sort of sitting there looking at something. But the active serial killer plot, and of course the performance from Nicolas Cage as the title character, gives this movie some juice that his other films lacked. It's like yeah, you still might be a little restless at times, but at least there are exciting payoffs here, something the others mostly lacked (though I admit I should watch Blackcoat's Daughter again; my lone viewing left me so annoyed by the casting "cheat" that I kind of forgot the rest in retrospect).

Of course, a big part of the movie's appeal (and what helped it land a record breaking opening weekend for its distributor) is how cryptic and spoiler-free the marketing has been thus far, so I don't want to get too far into details. I will say for those who haven't even seen a trailer and just want to know the basic plot that it's about a young FBI agent named Harker (Maika Monroe) who has a knack for solving puzzles and making connections that have escaped her fellow agants, and is thus put on the case of Longlegs, a serial killer who is somehow convincing fathers to murder their entire families and then themselves, all without ever setting foot into the home where it happened. How is he doing it?

Well since he's played by Nicolas Cage, one might assume he's just using whatever voodoo magic the actor himself has apparently taken advantage of; it's insane to me to remember that at his '90s peak (the Leaving Las Vegas/Rock/Face-Off era) he was barely into his 30s, when most of his contemporaries were pushing or already in their 40s. And he still looks great at 60! Not HERE, exactly, since his makeup as the character leaves him almost unrecognizable at times, but if you've seen him on any promotional appearances or even in newer movies where he's not altering his appearance (Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, for example) you'd never guess he was approaching retirement age.

Naturally, eventually you do find out Longlegs' secret, and for me this is where the movie lost me a little. Again I don't want to spoil things, but the explanations and reveals are both handed over along with a bit too much coincidence and what feels like reverse-engineered plotting for my tastes, and I couldn't help but feel a tinge of disappointment at how "small" it was. Then again, since Perkins' other movies left a lot of things ambiguous, I guess a bad explanation is better than none? There are still some questions at the end (vague allusion to a spoiler: for those who have seen it - why does the person behind the other person in that final shot not seem too concerned by what is happening? Are they ______ too?).

This misstep was not enough to derail the movie as a whole, mind you. Just more a "I could have joined the chorus of people saying this movie is amazing" if the ending knocked me flat instead of petering out. Until that point, it worked like gangbusters, with the right amount of slow burn dread and startling moments to satisfy even a well seasoned horror fan. The smash cut to the opening title alone is an all timer scare moment, and there are a few others that work almost just as well. And Cage does his thing a few times, but it actually not only works, but is legit terrifying - if someone makes a meme of any of his louder moments, then they're simply being jerks, as this isn't a "Not the bees!" kind of situation in the slightest. I don't know why people are always quick to knock the actor for dialing it up to 11 when the movie calls for it (he doesn't always; please watch Pig if you haven't already, as well as Dream Scenario - both of which deserved nominations), because even when it's a little weird at least he's DOING SOMETHING, which is far more preferable to the Chris Pratts of the world who show up to play Chris Pratt.

The rest of the cast is also quite good. I was delighted to see Blair Underwood in a meaty theatrical role; he's been a television powerhouse for almost as long as I can remember (my mom loved LA Law, so I watched it too) but I couldn't even remember the last time he was in a "multiplex" movie. According to IMDb it was one of the Madea ones all the way back in 2006, so good on Perkins and his casting team for an inspired choice; he's essentially playing the Scott Glenn role to Monroe's Jodie Foster. And as a charter member of the Urban Legend fan club, I was equally happy to see Alicia Witt as Monroe's mom, even if I probably never would have recognized her if the cast list didn't tell me to look for her. With her long gray hair and frail voice (her character is a reclusive hoarder) there's just no way I would have said "Oh that's Natalie, the world's worst college roommate."

Oh and the credits roll from top to bottom! Off-kilter all the way to the end. Of course Seven did this too, which probably won't help comparisons (though it's definitely far more Lambs-influenced), but still, a weird touch I always appreciate. And the soundtrack is great, with one of the score cues evoking "Dies Irae" (i.e. the main theme in The Shining) and T.Rex songs balancing it out. Plus the creepiest rendition of "Happy Birthday" ever uttered. Speaking of birthdays, the one clue the FBI has (not a spoiler, we learn this almost immediately) is that all of the victims have daughters who were born on the 14th, so I was tickled that the timing worked out for me to get my 2nd but really 1st viewing in on my usual Sunday night trip to the movies, which was indeed the 14th. And my sister's birthday is on a 14th (if you've seen the movie: January 14th, specifically! Gah!), so that added a little to my investment as well.

Now, by now I'm sure you've heard that this is "the scariest movie ever made!" and things like that. Well I'm here to tell you that: this has never done any horror movie any favors, because it's only gonna lead to hardcore fans complaining it isn't scary. And everyone has different metrics for these things; some folks think Annabelle: Creation is a masterpiece of terror whereas I found it damn near interminable. The abstract marketing was great, but pushing those kind of quotes just sets expectations too high. Maybe you WILL find it the scariest movie you've ever seen, maybe you'll find it even less scary than I did. But I can say that it does offer plenty of unsettling moments and scenes (Kiernan Shipka is barely recognizable in a cameo as someone with a connection to Longlegs, and the scene really reminded me of that one survivor interview from Poughkeepsie Tapes), plus a few good jolts. But it's very much a movie you need to be on the same wavelength with, or else you'll just be bored. I may have liked it more than Perkins' previous films, but again, it's not that he's really changing things up. He's just finding a better balance between his brand of peculiar type of "slow burn" and a more conventional thriller.

I was actually surprised to see that the movie got a C+ Cinemascore. While it seems low and would mean absolute death for a big tentpole (even the hated Whedon version of Justice League got a B+), that's actually not much lower than the average horror movie and higher than Immaculate got, and to me that was a more commercial movie. Hell, the original Saw got a C+! Unlike Rotten Tomatoes and the like, I actually put some stock into Cinemascore because it's the reaction of an excited opening night crowd of paying audiences, so even if I disagree, a low score means it's a polarizing, "weird" kind of movie. It outgrossed Perkins' last movie (Gretel) in two days and "overperformed", which means that tracking and all that stuff had it coming in at a certain number, but it actually ended up selling MORE tickets than expected. That only happens when people are recommending it, and that's a good thing for any movie in this day and age, let alone a kooky genre one. So I'm glad people are digging it, is what I'm saying, and I hope Perkins continues to follow his bliss (especially now that he's found a way to tap into the essential BC audience!) as regardless of how I feel about his filmography as a whole, he, like Jordan Peele and Jane Schoenbrun, has a signature stamp that's sadly missing from too many genre filmmakers these days. So here's hoping for more filmmakers like them, and for Perkins to do more like this.

What say you?


A Quiet Place: Day One (2024)

JULY 4, 2024


One of the things that worked best about Quiet Place Part II is that it didn't try to repeat a lot of the same tricks as the first one. It was a little "louder" thanks to the soundproof tank and the opening flashback, came up with some new ideas for suspense (the villains tying noisy bottles to a hero in order to keep them from moving was pretty brilliant), etc. - despite the limited concept, it was (in my opinion) just as good as the original. But for Michael Sarnoski, writer/director of A Quiet Place: Day One, he was somewhat painted into a smaller corner. How do you surprise audiences who have seen this scenario twice now, and in a prequel where they don't have systems in place to help live among these creatures?

Luckily he figured it out: basically make it a survival drama with a few monster scenes! Our hero is Sam (Lupita Nyong'o), who lives in a hospice with much older people as she battles cancer. On a day trip into the city to see a puppet show, which she only agrees to join in order to get some proper NY pizza, the scenario we saw at the beginning of Part II plays out, albeit in one of the most recognizable cities in the world instead of an all-American small town suburb. Sam and Reuben (Alex Wolff), the nurse who chaperoned them on the trip, along with Sam's cat Frodo, make their way back to the theater, where survivors have huddled and quickly learned to stay quiet (they also figure out that the creatures are blind, somehow - the movie could have used a moment to show this, as it's weird that they just seem to know it). Some helicopters fly past announcing an evacuation at the harbor, so everyone starts heading that way.

Except for Sam (and Frodo), of course. She instead decides that she wants to get the pizza she was promised, specifically from Patsy's in Harlem. It seems like a pretty foolish endeavor that will certainly get her killed, on par with Jason Lee's obsession with getting a toothpick in Dreamcatcher, but luckily Nyong'o is one of those performers who can sell this idea and not only make it believable, but even kind of reasonable. I mean, yeah, if it seemed like the world was ending and my options were "try to get past a bunch of monsters and get on a boat alongside hundreds of people who are not being as quiet as they should" or "go get pizza with Lupita Nyong'o" I'd probably choose the latter, too.

And it seems Sarnoski knew many people would feel the same way, so he actually inserts a character around the halfway point who, without any real reason to do so, decides to follow her and get pizza too. His name is Eric, and he's played by Joseph Quinn, who we all know/loved as Eddie on Stranger Things but we may not all know (I certainly didn't) that he's actually from the UK, so he gets to use his natural accent as his character is from London and came to the US for law school. Lupita, however, doesn't get to use her own speaking voice, but she gets to hold Frodo the adorable cat for big chunks of the movie, so I feel it evens out. This allows Sam a way to explain why it's important that she gets some of that pizza, and given her declining condition and sudden lack of easily available medical supplies, it doesn't need to be spelled out that monster or no, she doesn't think she'll be around much longer and wants to have this one good thing before she goes.

So it's basically one of those "Before I die I want to LIVE!" type movies, albeit smuggled into "Monster Movie Part 3." As a fan of Sarnoski's Pig starring Nicolas Cage, I was curious why he'd jump into this for his next movie, but in some ways it feels more like *his* movie than it does the previous films in this particular series. Obviously they could have hired anyone capable of delivering 90 minutes' worth of solid monster scenes, especially with the Manhattan playground to play in, but they instead went the Alien route and let a filmmaker come in and make his kind of movie in their world instead of forcing him to go through the franchise motions. Which is to say, yes, it's not as scary or suspenseful as the others, and nowhere near as quiet (a heavy rainstorm allows them to basically talk for a while, and other city sounds let them whisper fairly frequently), it's by far the most emotionally gripping. There's a scene where the two heroes wait for thunderclaps to let out frustrated screams, and it's an incredibly moving moment that had me welling up a bit.

(Speaking of the non-quiet: the score by Alexis Grapsas—who also composed Pig—is also lovely and more prominently used than Marco Beltrami's work on the first two.)

Of course, the flipside is, if you WANTED 90 minutes of monster action, then you're probably going to be disappointed. As much as I enjoyed the human drama of it all (and thank Christ, seeing a platonic male/female friendship develop and play out), even I felt that the suspense scenes could have been a little more gripping, especially since there were so few of them. There are only really four people in the movie, one of whom is Djimon Hounsou, reprising his character we meet later in the timeline, and another who dies pretty early. So the "anyone can go" feeling that the first two films had is pretty much MIA here, and the large scale attacks produce a couple of jolts but nothing that truly terrified. This also resulted in a (somewhat amusing but still a "con" instead of a "pro") first for the series, at least in my experience: the movie didn't put that same hold on the audience where we also felt the need to be totally quiet. I had a thermos with me (it was an AM screening, so coffee time!) and when I put it back down after taking a sip it made a little clunk, and only once (during one of the few "all quiet" scenes) did I feel guilty for breaking the mood. The other times I didn't even think much of it, since the movie itself only got completely quiet a few times.

For me this wasn't a dealbreaker (a surprise, sure, but not a detriment), but I can understand how it might be for others. It's a risky gambit, and I must admit I'm kind of impressed Michael Bay and co. were all on board with it - this is the least Platinum Dunes-y movie they've ever made. Luckily the box office and reviews have been good (if a little lower than the others on the latter), so hopefully if they plan to continue the franchise they can keep hiring new/interesting filmmakers and let them bring their own sensibilities to the table. There's only so many times we can watch someone try to quietly make their way across a room or open a candy bar wrapper or whatever, but there are infinite human stories to tell within a world where doing those things can get you killed. I hope we can see some more.

What say you?

P.S. If you've been to literally any movie in the past six months, you've already seen the trailer. So instead, enjoy Michael Stipe singing this classic Dashboard Confessional track!


Maxxxine (2024)

JUNE 24, 2024


Both Pearl and X were profitable if not exactly box office smashes, but that hasn’t stopped A24 from positing Maxxxine, the 3rd film in this unique trilogy, as a potential major hit. The big July release date (the other films were released in early Spring and Fall), the marketing campaign, the bigger budget (which means some bigger stars)… it’s likely the film’s opening weekend take is more than either of the other films mustered in their entire runs. I point that out because that means it’s very likely that some folks will see this movie without seeing the others, and I’m not sure that’s the best idea.

To be clear it’s fine if you skip Pearl, since it’s not about the same character (for the uninitiated, Pearl was a prequel about X’s killer), but X, in which we met Maxine (Mia Goth, who stars in all three films) herself and a lot about what made her tick, is in my opinion a crucial film to see before checking out this newest adventure. I don’t want to spoil the particulars, but it’s almost a certainty that the killer’s reveal won’t be satisfying without the context X provides. And the character of Maxine herself isn't exactly re-contextualized here, so knowing what she's all about and what she's been through already will be extremely helpful.

For those that have seen the others, this new entry continues the traditions they set of being set in different horror sub-genres. X was more or less a traditional slasher, and Pearl aimed for something that felt more at home in the “hagsploitation” genre (despite its younger lead character), but Maxxxine-which is set in 1985-is a straight up giallo/Brian De Palma type of thriller in the vein of Body Double or the more recent Knife + Heart. It’s a risky endeavor since the rule for sequels is “Do more of the same!” and these are all pretty different in terms of tone and look (and time period!), but it’s mostly paid off, so good for Ti West and his crew for a successful experiment. I may have issues with this film, but I hope it's a huge smash if only to see what a '90s version of Maxine would be up to and what style it'd ape. A Dimension homage?

Anyway, it’s several years after the events of X, and Maxine has made it to Hollywood. An opening audition scene proves to be fruitful and she lands her first legit gig: starring in a sequel to a cult classic possession horror called The Puritan. But she’s got a lot to prove, because she’s a (seemingly popular) porn star and the studio has some misgivings about casting her. Ultimately it’s the no-nonsense director Elizabeth Bender (played by Elizabeth Debicki; not sure if the very similar name was intentional) who goes to bat for her because she sees something in her. During these early scenes of Maxine prepping for the movie, we are told a few times that Bender is an ice queen, very demanding, etc. which seems to be setting up a sort of power struggle between these two strong women. And we also have a scene where Maxine is stalked by someone as she walks home from work only for her to turn the tables on him (in a most painful way involving her heels and the man’s… well, use your imagination). So it seems to be setting up a “Maxine once killed to survive but now she is killing to get ahead” kind of story, which would have been a full circle kind of thing with Goth's character in Pearl.

But weirdly, this idea is mostly dropped after a while; there’s one other instance of her “no one will get in my way” attitude regarding a private detective played by Kevin Bacon (who seems to know about her involvement in the X murders), but that’s about it. Bender’s supposed “I suffer no fools” reputation never really pays off; in fact at one point she even warmly suggests Maxine take the weekend off to have fun so she’d be less stressed for her return to work on Monday. It's an odd shift that the movie never really recovers from; the first hour is uneven but all forgiveable if it's going to build toward a knockout finale, but instead the third act almost seems grafted in from a different script entirely.

Basically, right around a crucial point where we need everything to start coming together, the movie’s other plot completely takes over and the whole “Maxine Does Hollywood” angle is mostly forgotten. As the movie is set in Los Angeles in 1985, those who know their true crime history can easily guess that the infamous Night Stalker plays a part in the film’s narrative; news reports constantly mention him, and two of Maxine’s friends from the industry end up being murdered in ways that seem like they’re his latest victims. But two cops played by Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan are convinced they were killed by a copycat instead, and after a third victim with ties to Maxine is discovered, they begin following her to see if she’s the killer or merely his next potential victim.

It's not a bad plot by any means, but it never quite gels with the themes and character arcs established by the other two films, as Maxine is almost incidental in this stuff and she could have been working as a waitress for all it mattered to the story (let's not forget that the Night Stalker's victims were all randomly chosen and not even really near Hollywood anyway). It ends up making Maxine more of a traditional would-be slasher movie victim at times; hell, she spends part of the climax tied to a tree! And since we know that Maxine is NOT the black gloved killer responsible for her friends’ deaths (the killer goes to see her perform in a nudie booth in the first reel), it never manages to be much of a mystery either, as only those who hadn't seen X wouldn't instantly guess who it was (and again, the movie doesn't do a very good job of filling those viewers in for the reveal).

In short, the movie seems like the result of two different ideas: a new entry in the X-iverse, and an ‘80s-set homage to giallo thrillers with the backdrop of a real life serial killer (think Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, which was interestingly enough released 25 years ago almost to the day). And I’d be all for either idea, and to be fair I was never not entertained by the film nor did I find any one scene or character to be bad or a miscalculation or anything like that. But the two ideas never coincide in perfect harmony; the new serial killer plot distracts away from focusing on Maxine the fame-obsessed victim/killer and leaves her as another run of the mill horror movie heroine at times. It also makes the film feel a bit shaggy, which is perhaps the intention (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood feels like a potential influence as well; in fact they use the same Universal backlot set) but a marked departure from the tighter narratives of the other two films. Some characters, like Lily Collins as the other actress in The Puritan, basically only appear in a single scene, despite seeming like they'll play a bigger part in the proceedings.

For example: the aforementioned high heels scene. It’s a great scene! I winced at the denouement! But it also has no connection to anything else, nor is it mentioned again. Even with the subplot of the two cops who think she’s involved with some other murders, there’s never any “And where were you when this dude got his balls annihilated by someone matching your description?” type questioning. So the scene, while good, could have easily been removed without it affecting anything about the plot. OR it needed a few more instances like it to make it clear that Maxine is now a woman who will kill any perceived threat, which poses a problem when [whatever else happens]. Instead it just ends up feeling like filler. Entertaining filler, yes, but filler all the same.

It also seems to be missing a few bits of exposition at times. During the climax, the killer is seen to have a group of followers out of nowhere, and they also mention something like “These are the victims' family members!” Victims of who? The Night Stalker? Pearl/Maxine? I talked to someone later who was actually somewhat convinced that the Night Stalker and Maxine’s pursuer were one in the same; it was clear to me that they were not, but it was also so spottily conveyed that I’m not surprised that there was some confusion (I dread the takes from people who watch on streaming when they’re not even paying full attention). It’s amusing; my main complaint about some of West’s earlier films was that it felt like they had to be stretched to hit a bare minimum runtime, but the problem here is that it seemed like the movie needed another half hour to let some of its ideas come together.

Again though: it’s not a bad movie! Overall I enjoyed it, particularly the first hour. The recreation of ‘80s Hollywood is spot on and well thought out (personal fave touch: the tracking/warbling effect on the opening credits) and the soundtrack is recognizable without relying on the most overplayed hits like many ‘80s period pieces do. I loved how Maxine’s flashbacks play out like moments from a VHS tape, tapping into her psyche in ways a line of dialogue or something wouldn’t be as satisfying. And how can anyone on the planet dislike a movie where Kevin Bacon chases Mia Goth into the Psycho house (only to get caught by Larry Fessenden)? There’s a lot of really good stuff here and those who love “vibes horror” will absolutely love it. But I couldn’t help but think that if the script had better payoffs for some of the things that were set up (both in the previous films and in this one) that it easily could have been my favorite of the three. Maybe a director’s cut will resolve some of those issues, if there is one to be had. For now, I'd say as long as your expectations are kept in check (maybe impossible after all this pre-release hype), you'll have a good time and, like me, be interested in a possible fourth film when all is said and done.

What say you?

P.S. Since it’s set around the production of a horror movie and it’s 1985, a Fangoria popping up wasn’t too surprising but I did love that it was the one with Friday the 13th Part V on the cover. A little love for my man Roy is always good to see. And it's a bit of a tip of the hat, perhaps, as that film and this one deal with a new killer who is aping a more famous one.


The Exorcism (2024)

JULY 1, 2024


By my count, Joshua John Miller has written two films about growing up with a parent who is famous for a horror movie. One is The Final Girls, which is sweet and fun and taps into nostalgia for the era of slasher films, and the other is The Exorcism, which is... well, none of those things. Miller is the son of Jason Miller, star of The Exorcist, so one could kind of see Final Girls as the writer dipping his toes into autobiographical waters before diving in without a lifevest in the deep end this time around, as he not only directed this time as well, but also tackled his reality head on: it's about the child of an actor playing the priest in a possession movie.

Russell Crowe is the toplined star, playing disgraced actor Tony Miller, but the real protagonist is Lee (Ryan Simpkins) as his daughter, who is sent to live with him after being kicked out of her boarding school for the rest of the semester. Their relationship is not great—she calls him "Tony" instead of "Dad"—but she helps him practice lines for what is apparently his first good gig in along time: the Max Von Sydow role in a remake of The Exorcist. He gets her a gig as a PA (to ensure she's around for the film's events), but almost as soon as filming begins he starts acting strangely. Is he possessed, like the character in the film he's making? Or is he letting his own demons (with addiction, with his wife's death, with a repressed childhood, take your pick) get the better of him?

It's a solid idea for a movie, and one can't argue with the quality of the cast they've assembled to tell it (how often do we see David Hyde Pierce show up in a genre film?). But unfortunately, the movie feels incomplete from start to finish, as if Miller and his cowriter M.A. Fortin had some great ideas for scenes and began filming them before knowing how those scenes would end, or flow into the next. Sequences start and seem to be going somewhere, only to stop abruptly without being mentioned again. Certain co-stars show up for such minimal screentime that one wonders why they bothered to cast them (even Sam Worthington; he's third billed but I would be shocked if his screentime topped as many minutes, playing what is essentially Jason Miller's role in their possession movie). Even major plot points—such as the aforementioned PA gig—aren't even made clear with a line of dialogue or something, we just have to infer it after seeing Lee on set a half dozen times before a scene where she brings the director a coffee.

Worse, there's a phoniness to it all that is constantly distracting. They never come right out and say they're remaking The Exorcist; Lee looks at her dad's script and says "Wait, so they're remaking... (chuckle)", which along with the film's title ("The Georgetown Project") and what we pick up on of the film's plot through a few scenes of the actors filming it (two priests, possessed girl, head spinning) makes it very obvious what movie they're remaking without ever actually saying so. Later they even bring up The Exorcist, but as one of a few examples (Omen and Poltergeist being the others) of cursed productions, but even though it's already been stated that they're doing a remake of ("chuckle"), the reference dies there, without anyone noting the coincidence. All of this makes the movie feel insincere, like you're watching an Asylum mockbuster of a would-be exaggerated biopic.

Then again, it seems that the original idea was to just straight up set itself on the set of the original 1973 film, and after that didn't work out (I'm guessing the rights holders politely declined) they opted to say it was a remake in the present day and then never really fleshed out how that would change things, so a lot of the would-be trappings of a period piece remain. Lee, being a teenager in 2019-2024 (this sat on the shelf for a while; Crowe shot it before Pope's Exorcist) has a cell phone, but the one time she uses it is in one of the film's many confusing scenes (she is scrolling instagram when it starts buzzing as if she got a new message or something, but she begins panicking as if something was wrong, but we never see her phone again to understand why she's so upset). At one point she even grabs a landline (a corded one at that!) to try to dial for help. And the director of the film (Adam Goldberg) is so Friedkin codified (throwing his weight around the set, screaming at actors, saying horrible things to them just before calling "Action!" in order to get a rise out of them to improve their performance) it almost seems like no one told Goldberg he wasn't supposed to be playing the legendary auteur. They even have a cold room set, as if this was a necessary part of the production instead of just something Friedkin did because he didn't have CGI to add the actors' breath to sell the idea of the room being cold.

The whole "is he possessed or mentally ill?" angle makes no sense either. At one point Tony jumps out a window and returns to set the next day, and he also does a full backwards contortion (i.e. spider-walk) type in front of the entire crew. However these things are chalked up to "he's drunk/he's off his meds"? And while the actor Tony is replacing (played by Adrian Pasdar! Always nice to see that dude) dies from what appears to be a freak accident, the movie takes a brief trip into slasher territory by having Crowe straight up murder one of the other actors by smashing through his dressing room mirror, an act that causes the movie to be shut down but prompts no other investigation or suspicion. Where's the Lt. Kinderman standin when you need him? Even sillier is that his daughter sees all these things from the start and yet keeps showing up to work. What are those morning car rides like?

I am really baffled by this endeavor. Again, it's been on the shelf for a while, and I spied an "Additional Editor" in the end credits which tends to mean it was reshaped from an earlier attempt (ironically this makes it closer to a true Exorcist movie than anything else, as nearly every one of them has alternate versions). There are reports that Covid messed with post production, so I can only assume that they planned to do reshoots after the late 2019 filming and never got to do so, and re-edited the movie to make something more or less coherent out of it. And that sucks for the filmmakers, but if they're still charging the same price for a ticket, then the movie has to be judged on the same level as all of those "actually completed" ones showing on the adjacent screens. And this movie is nothing more than some scattered ideas in search of a pulse. Next time write a book, Mr. Miller - you can get away with more, clearances wise.

What say you?


The Watchers (2024)

JUNE 10, 2024


The 2010 film Devil (which I quite liked) was supposed to be the first of a series of films produced by M. Night Shyamalan but written and directed by others, which seemed like a good idea to me. Unfortunately those other films never materialized, and it’s only now, 14 years later, that we are finally getting another movie where the polarizing but never boring filmmaker is only hand as a producer. But he didn’t go far to find a filmmaker for his long-awaited sophomore effort as an exec, as The Watchers is directed and written by his own daughter, Ishana Night Shyamalan. It's an odd choice, I must say, to make a debut under the shadow of a very famous (and again, polarizing) filmmaker that’s also an adaptation of a novel (a faithful one at that, best I can tell – more on that soon). It’s hard to gauge one’s abilities as a storyteller when they’re not only telling someone else’s story, but also doing one that’s right within the wheelhouse of the guy whose name put a few more butts in seats.

Then again, since the movie isn’t particularly great, maybe it was a smart move. It’s hard to blame her for its lapses when she was faithfully adapting another person’s story. I never read AM Shine’s novel (which came out only a few years ago, so I can assume the pandemic inspired its "trapped in a room" scenario), but I looked at a detailed synopsis online and the film keeps all of its beats—including the goofy ending—intact as written. From what I can gather, the main difference seems to be that the novel focused on a power conflict between the two main characters, and in the film that’s more or less just a couple of arguments early on. The plot, for those who haven’t seen the trailer 900 times over the past few months, concerns Mina (Dakota Fanning), an odd young woman who works in a pet store and goes out at night pretending to be someone else (complete with a wig) to initiate one night stands. Her boss tasks her with delivering a rare bird to a buyer who lives way off the beaten path somewhere, and since this is a genre movie, her car breaks down before getting to her destination. Attempting to walk her way to civilization, she is menaced by unseen creatures, only for an older woman to appear and tell her that she must join her inside a little bunker, “right now!”

While it’d be funny if Mina said “No thanks” and the movie continued following her through the woods without mentioning the bunker again, alas she does as instructed, and learns about her predicament. The creatures, aka The Watchers, can’t come out during the day but at night they want to watch the people in the bunker, who are seen through a wall that’s essentially a two way mirror. The older woman, Madeline, is played by Olwen Fouéré, so naturally it’s on her to explain a lot of this exposition, though the other two people in the bunker, a young guy named Daniel (Oliver Finnegan) and a 30ish woman named Ciara (Barbarian’s Georgina Campbell), chip in from time to time. Naturally Mina doesn’t want to stay there and keeps trying to find a way out of the forest, but her plans are continually foiled and she eventually learns to listen to the others when they say “You can’t get out!” There are “point of no return” markers around the forest, and the idea is that if you cross one, there’s no way you can get back to the bunker before nightfall (that these markers exist even though another plot point concerns the days getting shorter is a plot hole we just have to accept). But with the forest so vast and without anything to help guide them, they can’t risk continuing to run straight past the marker and just *hope* to reach safety, so the markers keep them in place.

So the first half or so of the movie is just… that. They run outside and look for supplies, then run back and kind of hang out for the Watchers’ amusement. It’s not a very compelling story (I suspect on the page it’d have the internal monologues of its characters to at least flesh them out), so you’re just kind of waiting to get answers, even when you know they’re probably not going to be very satisfying. There’s an opening scene with a guy running through the woods and eventually being attacked that should have been saved for when Mina arrived, because then she could have learned at the same time we did what the stakes actually were. Instead the audience is ahead of her, so it’s rather frustrating watching her essentially catch up to what we’ve known before we even met her. To make up for it, we are teased flashbacks to why she's ducking calls from her sister and how their mother died, but I can't say it's enough to make her into a well rounded protagonist.

Once they (spoiler) find a secret room under their bunker things pick up. We meet a new character, get an info dump, a change of scenery, etc. But of course, once we start getting all of the information, the movie reaches a critical point, where you’re either going to go along with the reveals, or laugh them off the screen. I don’t want to spoil the particulars, but I was reminded of three movies that I’ll hint at: one of Shyamalan’s less loved films of the ‘00s, another Irish horror that’s fairly recent, and the sophomore film from a modern genre titan. If you can figure out which three movies I am referring to, The Watchers is basically a stew of all those, with a dash of Quiet Place for good measure (that one’s not a spoiler, you can tell as much from the trailer). And not for nothing, but they're all more interesting.

I mean it’s not BAD, really, it’s just very uninvolving. Our characters learn the truth from an info dump presented via video logs on a computer, so there’s not much of a feeling of discovery. The characters themselves aren’t very interesting, and their conflicts get resolved bizarrely quickly (at one point Daniel locks Mina and Madeline outside, but once he finally lets them in, there’s no real repercussion or continued antagonism, everyone just forgets it within minutes). And the last 20 minutes take place away from the woods entirely, so the confined/claustrophobic setup is long gone by the time the credits roll. Mina’s backstory is doled out through a few flashbacks, one of which is a terrific jolt, but what it tells us seems to be foreshadowing an ending that the movie (or book) doesn’t have, and it also breaks up the claustrophobic setting, so I’m not quite sure why it was presented in this fashion.

Ultimately, to me it felt like a movie that was designed more for a streaming service, which is to say: for people to half watch while looking at their phones. It’s all just kind of there, never really coming to life or paying off its occasionally interesting-sounding bits (there’s a line about extra fingers that had me thinking that it might be a takedown of AI, but alas, no such luck). The actors are fine, the scenery is lovely, and I appreciated the goofy final moments just on sheer spectacle alone (again, without spoiling, but when ______ suddenly has ______ as they make their exit, I nearly applauded at the randomness), but I guarantee if I didn’t write this review today, less than 48 hours after seeing it, I’d have trouble remembering much else this time next week.

What say you?


Under Paris (2024)

JUNE 7, 2024


Much like The Exorcist with possession movies, it's impossible to watch a killer shark movie without thinking about Jaws, which also happens to be one of the few undeniably perfect movies ever made (due to its themes and measured pace, I can understand why someone may dislike The Exorcist, but there's literally no excuse for Jaws. You either love it or you're objectively wrong). And it's spawned an entire subgenre of its own; I may put them in with the killer bear, dog, etc. movies here (the "Predator" sub-genre) but if I were to put all of those movies together, I'd guess shark-based entries would make up at least of them. Under Paris is the latest one, but I bet we're only a few weeks away from another.

Sometimes these movies lean into Jaws' mighty shadow, either by ripping it off blindly or offering direct homages/references as if to say "We are doing our own thing, but we respect our master." Deep Blue Sea is probably the most overt example of the latter, as not only do they find the same license plate that Hooper pulled out of the poor innocent tiger shark, but the three sharks in the movie were killed the same way the sharks in the first three Jaws entries were. So it was kind of amusing that Under Paris owes more of a debt to Renny Harlin's blockbuster than to Spielberg's, as the film is loaded with R-rated carnage courtesy of several sharks.

There's also a lot of DNA from the two Meg films, in that the 3rd act revolves around our heroes trying to prevent a disaster at a big event. While the swiping of the "close the beaches" plot point is practically a given with these things (here it's the Olympic triathalon that the mayor refuses to cancel), we have to recall that Bruce the shark never got a big smorgasbord; the one attack on the all important 4th of July occurs at the movie's halfway point, prompting the three protagonists to head out to sea to kill the fish. Here, the opening scene tops the body count of any single entry in the Jaws franchise, and the third act, as in the Megs and some other movies, they watch helplessly as the shark causes major chaos at the event (going on as planned), spending just as much time pulling people out of the water as they do on shark control. This helps keep the Jaws comparisons at bay, which can only help a movie like this.

Also like The Meg, our hero is dealing with a tragedy on a previous underwater excursion. Bérénice Bejo plays Sophia, an oceanologist whose entire team (including her husband) is chomped by the shark in the opening scene. Years later, she discovers the same shark is now swimming through the waters of the River Seine in Paris, which is being cleaned up for the upcoming Olympics (which really are in Paris, making me wonder why Netflix dropped the movie now instead of next month when their marketing would be basically free). Naturally no one believes her, but after convincing a handful of cops to check it out, and they see it for themselves, they have her back for the rest. Unfortunately convincing the mayor to cancel the events is a non-starter, and there is also a group of "save the sharks!" activists who are trying to lure the shark back to the ocean, so the movie has no shortage of potential victims.

Luckily for us sickos, director Xavier Gens doesn't chicken out and keep the body count low. In two glorious sequences (not counting the occasional brief carnage along the way), the sharks make a buffet out of large groups (the activists and then the swimmers), offering up the sort of R rated chaos that the PG-13 Megs shy away from. Legs get eaten off, the water rapidly becomes more red, people are yanked back under the water only inches from safety... it's the sort of stuff that'd have an appreciative crowd hooting and hollering in a theater, but of course that's not an option when it's the latest movie being tossed onto a streaming service where it'll be forgotten in a few weeks. But back on point, Gens manages to bring some of his "French Extremity" energy (he gave us Frontiere(s), if you recall) to what often resembles an Asylum/Syfy type killer shark movie, which is novel. I even got the impression that no one was truly safe, which is nearly impossible in this sort of thing.

I just wish the CGI was more convincing. It wasn't just the plot that had me thinking of things like Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus, as some of the VFX shots didn't really look much better than the ones in those Z-grade movies. There's a part where the shark jumps out of the water from under a boat, capsizing it and sending its four occupants plunging into the river, and it should have been a major highlight, but the shark animation was so silly looking it was hard to really get the intended rise out of me. And while we do see some folks torn apart, there is a tendency to just pull someone out and see that they're missing a leg (or both in one case) without showing the attack itself. That trick is effective once or twice, but at a certain point it becomes obvious they're cutting around things that would just look bad anyway.

Also (spoilers here) the ending is abrupt and not very satisfying. I like the general idea, but it's not even a phyrric victory for our heroes, they just don't ever accomplish anything. And (again with the offscreen stuff) the jerk mayor is seen plunging into the water, but not eaten by a shark like they deserve, adding to the generally unsatisfying nature of its closing moments. The "Planet of the Sharks" idea is fine and even intriguing, but there needs to be some kind of "win" to balance it out, either by killing the main shark or at least showing that it ate the human antagonist at the very least. Also it had one of my pet peeves, where people don't even make an effort to survive and just stand there despite it seeming like they had plenty of time to get to safety (in this case, they're in a boat as a surge of water approaches, and they make no effort to, you know, drive directly away from it). The hopeless nature of its conclusion felt like it was from a different movie entirely, souring things just a touch at a crucial moment.

But otherwise it's a good time. Bejo made for a solid heroine, the setting was novel for this kind of thing (a shark movie without a beach?), and it was taken seriously by its makers, which I can always appreciate. Again, it's a shame that it's being dumped to Netflix instead of playing in theaters, because I suspect the visual flaws would be more forgiving with everyone cheering for the moment, but oh well. One thing Netflix offers a theater can not is the ability to change the language, and you should be sure to do so and put it in its native French as opposed to the English dub that plays by default. It's not too bad as far as lip "syncing" goes, but it has that weird tinniness to it that makes it sound phony even when you can't see the actor's face in the show anyway. Plus if you can't understand the dialogue without the subs you won't be able to look at your phone the whole time, which I assume is how 90% of all Netflix content is watched. But even in English, it's a decent entry in this overcrowded sub-genre and should scratch any itch you may be having for such things.

What say you?


This Review Is Not About LONGLEGS

MAY 31, 2024


As a legit Nicolas Cage fan (meaning: I love his work and daringness as an actor, not his ability to generate memes) I was quite curious how I'd feel about Longlegs, because while it gave him a meaty role as a serial killer, it's also a film from Osgood Perkins. And so far, while I haven't DISLIKED Perkins' films (of the two I've seen, Gretel & Hansel and Blackcoat's Daughter) I also felt a disconnect from them; any one shot (particularly Gretel) looked terrific, the actors did fine work, etc., but I couldn't quite invest myself in their storylines. But this one seemed more up my alley just on premise alone, so I figured that plus Cage would, if nothing else, give me enough to chew on and discuss in a review (the other two left me so indifferent I didn't even bother).

But as the title explains, this review is not about Longlegs.

Because as it very sadly turned out, about five hours before the lights dimmed for the movie, I got a phone call from a friend who has, best to my memory, never called me before in his life; in fact he's someone who has bemoaned the idea of people actually calling someone at all when texts or emails would suffice. So I knew it couldn't be good, and it wasn't: he was telling me that our mutual friend, the great Scott Wampler, had suddenly died that morning. After screaming and crying and drinking a glass of whiskey (long before I drove, I assure you), I decided to still head out to the theater, thinking the movie would make for a much needed distraction. But it didn't work; I was unable to focus on much of it, as I just kept thinking of the fact that I was never again going to see or speak to my friend again. For what it's worth, the girl next to me seemed borderline hysterical at some of its scarier moments, so I suspect folks will really dig it when it comes out (this was a special advanced screening; it hits theaters July 12th). But me? My eyes just kind of looked in the general direction of the screen while I wondered things like "What's going to happen to Conan?"

(Conan, his dog, is thankfully in good hands.)

Making it worse is that, while he wasn't someone I talked to every week, I had actually been in contact with him more than usual recently. Scott and our other pal, Russ Fischer, had recently launched a Hellraiser-themed podcast, Jesus Wept!, and they had asked me to come on to talk Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (not that it's a particular favorite or anything, but as the series' most blatant attempt to make Pinhead more of a traditional slasher icon like Freddy or Jason, they thought my masked murderer-loving ass would be an ideal choice to talk about it). Our recording was set for Wed the 5th; I had emailed Scott earlier in the day to double check how we were recording, and two hours later even noted that it seemed odd he hadn't replied as he was usually quite quick to do so. I just figured he was at a movie or something. I cried a lot that day, but I suspect I'll cry even harder on Wednesday when 11 am rolls around and I have a giant hole in my schedule that can't ever be filled.

Scott's not the first friend to pass. Not even the first one in recent memory. But it's hit me so much harder than any have before, and there's a lot of reasons for that. One is that he was an incredibly loyal and supportive friend, a combination that is sadly difficult to come by, at least for me. As I noted, he asked me to be on his podcast, and if you've seen the announced guest list, you know he didn't need to grab random pals of his to get episodes in the can; the lineup included heavyweights like Mike Flanagan, Barbara Crampton, and Joe Lynch, not to mention actual Hellraiser series personnel like Scott Derrickson, Gary Tunnicliffe, and David Bruckner. Seeing my name on their guest list for social media alongside those others was somewhat surreal; my impostor syndrome kicked in high that day, I assure you.

And that's just one of many examples of him thinking of me when he didn't have to, and it certainly wasn't from being in the room when he needed to come up with guest ideas. With me in California and him in Texas, I've actually only spent time with him in person I think maybe four times over the past ten years. But as we were both on the staff for BirthMoviesDeath, there was a period of six years or whatever that we spoke just about every day, via the company Slack we were ostensibly supposed to use for work purposes but mostly treated as an AOL chatroom. Scott joined the site as an occasional writer when he was still working as a bartender at one of the Alamo Drafthouse locations, and over the next few years rose through the ranks to be one of its most prominent voices, to the extent that it's weird to think of a period of time when he *wasn't* there.

He became such a major fixture on the site that by the time Drafthouse laid us all off thanks to Covid, he and Evan Saathoff were basically running it. And when another company expressed interest in buying BMD to keep it going, Scott (and Evan) insisted that I be kept in the fold. That new company turned out to be really bad and we all walked away a month later (far as I know, no one ever offered to save it AGAIN), but it meant the world to me that of all the things they could have demanded, telling this guy "You have to keep paying Collins to write about whatever the hell horror movie he wants every week" was one of them. Again, the LOYALTY! For someone he spent maybe three actual hours with in person in his life! That whole "Out of sight, out of mind" thing can be a painfully real thing, especially here in LA, but it clearly wasn't the case for him, and I loved him all the more for it.

He was also a champion ballbuster, a quality I deeply admire in folks. Like a good roaster, he never took it too far or came off as a jerk, he always found the right balance of "I'm making this joke at your expense but in a way that shows I care enough about you and pay enough attention to know those things about you in the first place." It was an HONOR to get one of his trademark "DESTROYED IN SECONDS!" on Twitter, and if you never got one you have missed out on something special. He was, without doubt, one of the funniest people I've ever met, and our dark senses of humor often aligned. When I thought of a joke that was maybe a bit too mean or bleak for the masses, I would send it to him personally, and not only would he appreciate it he'd usually top it in response. I mean, the guy's handle was ScottWamplerRIP, so the sunofabitch even topped our comparatively meager attempts at gallows humor about the whole thing.

And while I don't want to make it about me, his death unfortunately comes at a time when I'm already in a deep funk about the loss of another friend. Not to death, thankfully, but instead a dumb argument that spiraled into a bigger one. Wasn't the first with this friend (who IS someone I see often/talk to every day, at least until the fight), but it seems it'll be the last, as they've cut all ties with me and responded to my last attempt at reconciliation with outright hostility on their social media. Scott's passing has generated any number of "Tell your friends you love them, you never know when they'll be gone forever" sentiments, but I am still iced out from this person (who also knew him, to be clear; in fact the last time I saw him in person they were there too). I was already pretty convinced that I'd never hear from them again (at this point it would be akin to beating a dead Horse), but this just kind of double bagged that belief. If a death of a mutual friend can't convince them that maybe it's not worth ending a nearly lifelong friendship over some hurt feelings and misunderstandings, I can't imagine anything else will.

So, yeah. I'm very sad about that on my day to day, and Scott was one of the people who could make anything more fun and help keep my mind off those kind of unpleasantries in life. I mean, the guy even had me excited to talk about Hellraiser III for Christ's sake! Seeing his tweets, or the way he could make even the least interesting news break into a must-read article, or just repeating one of our silly in-jokes out of the blue generated the sort of energy that could get me through any rough day, and now that energy source is gone, forever. I lucked out in a weird way from having taken a year or so off Twitter (I'm only really back on because of that other friend; I used to just talk to them all day but now I can't, so I talk to Twitter), because people have been sharing some of his classic bits and a lot of them I hadn't seen before because they fell during that period. I am crushed that some of his earlier "work" is gone due to a change in Twitter handles and his own deletion of older stuff (if you never heard the story of the Krippendorf's Tribe Fan Club, you truly missed out), but there is still a wealth of it on there for your perusal. The Vampire Lord saga alone is funnier than most comedies that millions of dollars were spent on to make, and he was just tossing it off on Twitter without a second thought.

And the writing is mostly all there, though you might need Wayback Machine to read it properly. The name of this post is in tribute to one of his all time best goofs: "This Post Is Not About Batman", and there are countless others. One of his last ever posts on Fangoria.com, where he's been employed since the ending of BMD (his Kingcast podcast with Eric Vespe is part of the Fangoria network) began with "Here’s a news story that’s got the ring of a particularly wild Mad Libs," already making what was otherwise a pretty bland announcement into something worth reading. I was always envious of those who could write up all those daily news breaks that had to be written (for the clicks) and find a way to make them actually interesting to those who did indeed click, and he was second to none as far as I could tell.

I don't know if I'll ever get past this one. We had a running joke about the Ozzy Osbourne song "Perry Mason" that plays quite frequently on SiriusXM, and it's probably going to make me cry every time I see it and instinctively grab my phone to snap a pic for him. We bonded over our mutual love of Fletch, a movie he watched on his birthday every year and now I think I will instead (weirdly enough, he actually died on Fletch's "birthday", that is, the date it was released in 1985), and that'll probably make me tear up too. Despite our geographically mandated distance he left such a big impact on so many things I love; he's the one who convinced me to try "Soulsborne" games, a genre I practically play exclusively now. When Elden Ring came out he mocked me for being so slow with games and he was seemingly a bit stunned when I actually got further into it than he did; a rare thing I can say I bested him at, so it was a source of pride! Believe me, it wasn't easy to best him at anything. When he was asked to be on the Screen Drafts "Alien/Predator" ranking he brought me along because of all the time we spent on the BMD slack talking about the Alien movies - how the hell am I gonna be able to watch Romulus without talking to him after?

Scott also (like most friends; sorry pal, you weren't special on this one) liked to make fun of my taste in music, so I might as well dive into something on that. There's this nu-metal band called Three Days Grace whose most recent record has a song called "Lifetime", and for two years I thought it was a breakup song but, weirdly, I only learned a few days ago it's actually about a dead person. There's a line in there that's gutted me since I heard it: "Who do I talk to when I want to talk to *you*?" and I'm sure he's rolling his eyes and mocking me to the nearest person in the afterlife at me tearing up at it, but it hurts even more now. I want to talk to Scott again. I want to spend two hours day drinking and talking about the shitty Cenobites in Hellraiser III. I want to get another email from him someday that he wants me to come back on Kingcast to do trivia and make another enemy out of some famous person I admire (Kate Siegel apparently wanted to murder me for the questions I came up with when she was the guest). I want him to mock me for constantly talking about Halloween sequels again. I want to go on Twitter and see that Creature from the Black Lagoon icon next to another joke that makes me jealous I didn't think of it first. I want to get another drink with the guy who, when I met for the first time in person, was borderline mad that I had been in Austin for a day and hadn't drank with him yet.

You go through life wanting more friends like him and now he's gone. You go through life being thankful you have someone like him to make you laugh when other things are dire, but what do you do when he's the one who's gone? It's so unfair. I hate it.

That said, hopefully I'll let you know how Longlegs is next month.

What say you?


The Strangers: Chapter One (2024)

MAY 20, 2024


Sometimes, a movie tells you almost instantly that you shouldn’t expect too much out of it, acting almost as a warning to discerning audiences that they might as well cut their losses and leave now. The Strangers: Chapter One is one such example; after a cold open where a guy is chased through the woods and then killed by the title characters, we are shown one of those overhead landscape shots along with an on-screen title saying “Somewhere In Oregon.” But in that same shot we see an exit sign for the town of Lime, Oregon, so despite the title’s insistence, we know *exactly where* we are. A nitpicky thing, sure, but it just suggests a certain halfassery, like someone (a producer most likely – and there are several of them, including Courtney Solomon, another warning I didn't heed) wanted to play up on the “middle of nowhere” cliché that’s so prevalent in these kinds of movies, even if it wasn’t accurate.

It’s also another example (some of which we learned in the trailer) that this movie, which for all intents and purposes is a remake of the 2008 film, missed the point of what made the story work so well the first time around. For those who can’t recall (the fact that it’s been sixteen years since it came out is mind-blowing to me), the central location of the 2008 movie actually belonged to Scott Speedman’s character’s family, so it wasn’t some random house in the middle of nowhere to him, it was HIS. That’s a big part of what made it scary, as it took elements from the classic home invasion scenario AND the “we’re miles from help” type stories that set up any number of horror movies.

The other thing that made it more interesting than so many others of its type is that the couple (Speedman and Liv Tyler) were not all lovey dovey; in fact they were in a very odd spot, as he planned to take her there as a celebration of their engagement, only for him to turn him down before they got there (even romantic movies sometimes can’t pull off a devastating moment like Speedman realizing he has laid out flower petals all over the place – awkward!). Even if the killers hadn’t shown up, I’d be interested in watching how the rest of their weekend went, you know? And then you can even consider things like "She just broke his heart, is he going to be all that invested in putting himself in harm's way to help her?" (There's an idea: the Strangers pick a house where everyone inside is more likely to kill each other before they have a chance.)

Alas, this time around it’s the usual thing; the couple is on a cross country trip for a new job and their car breaks down after they stopped in a random little town to get some food. And instead of being in that awkward position of “I don’t want to marry you but I don’t want to break up, either”, it’s just a standard lovey dovey couple where the girl wants to get married but the dude hasn’t had the stones to ask yet. So it’s a setup you’ve seen a million times, with a couple you’ve seen even more. And that’d be fine if the movie was doing something different, but these alterations (which, if I haven’t made it clear, make the movie less interesting) are pretty much the only parts of the movie that aren’t directly swiped from the original. From then on it’s pretty much the same: the guy leaves on an errand, the girl smokes and doesn’t notice a killer walking around behind her, he accidentally kills someone who came to help, they go out to a shed next to the house, the Strangers ram the car they try to use to escape, etc, etc.

So that’s what the experience is like for anyone who has seen the original. Will it work on folks who HADN’T seen that one, or maybe even those who only saw it the one time in theaters and forgotten about it? Well for those it’s certainly a decent enough timekiller, I suppose. It’s never all that tense (even without the flash forward this time), but there are some decent jump scares and a suitably creepy moment where the girl is playing piano (“Moonlight Sonata” of course, because again: effort was not anyone's priority when it came to crafting this take on the story) and we realize via dim reflection in a frame above her that the Man in the Mask (sorry, Scarecrow now for some reason) is sitting behind her watching her play. The obligatory attack on the girl is also surprisingly brutal, which isn't exactly a selling point on its own, but after the tedium of some other genre films this year (i.e. Night Swim, which offered a premise that essentially guaranteed no one would ever even get hurt let alone killed), I guess it was nice to see one that wasn’t afraid to actually bang the heroes up a bit.

There are at least a couple of brief sequences that manage to get the pulse racing a little more, to its credit. At one point they realize the house has a crawlspace under it, so they go under there to try to make their way to safety, only for some rats to scurry past/over them and then the girl drives her hand right through a nail, both things leaving them wanting nothing more than to shriek/scream but having to remain quiet and not give their position away. And the shed scene has a quick flash of intensity when one stranger attacks the girl through a window with another advancing on her from inside. Also, while they do some dumb shit for sure, they actually circumvent one cliche in a way I haven't seen before; our male hero is asthmatic and of course drops his inhaler, so I immediately thought he'd have an attack at the worst time and be unable to help or the gasping would give his position away or something. Instead, when he realizes it's gone, he fashions a makeshift one out of a water bottle! Not sure if that's scientifically possible, but at least it showed some quick-thinking skills.

If you’re a fan of the original who is thinking “I don’t remember things like that happening?” you are correct – these moments are among the only times that they carve their own path. But whenever it starts to actually have its own identity, the movie quickly resumes its copycat nature, once again reminding any fan of the original that they’ve seen this all before, only better. Christ, they even have the two Mormon kids on their bikes handing out fliers and the climax (once again in the early morning light) where the two protagonists are tied to chairs while the three Strangers (in the same order no less) stand over them. It’s one thing to pay homage to an earlier film when doing a remake, but copying the same beats over and over, for a story that wasn’t all that complicated in the first place, is just remarkably pointless to me.

And that’s sad, because I was legit excited when they announced Renny Harlin was directing this (and the two already shot sequels that will follow). I don’t think he’s ever made a completely great movie (Cliffhanger probably comes closest), but he’s certainly made a lot of really fun ones over the years and given his early days in supernatural horror (with a few trips back since, like Exorcist: The Beginning) I was excited to see what he’d do with a more grounded slasher type. But his wealth of experience—far and away the most of any Strangers director thus far—was no match for the stretched-thin budget (less than the original even without inflation) and far too basic/uninspired script. They honestly could have hired anyone and I’m confident they would have ended up with roughly the same level of quality.

As for the sequels, well obviously I’m not too excited to see further adventures of our survivor, as she didn’t exactly scream “The new Laurie Strode!” to me (hell, she barely even hits the levels of “The new whoever the girl in Final Exam was!”). That said, if the very clumsily implemented setup for the next one* is an honest depiction, it’ll be set in the hospital where she’s been taken for her injuries, so at least it’ll be offering new scenarios and locations simply by default. But per Harlin, the three movies together tell one complete story, so Chapter 2 will be the middle, which is traditionally the least interesting of the three acts of a traditional narrative. So again, yeah, can’t say I’m refreshing the AMC page to find out when I can buy tickets for that one (as of now, the plan is to release the next one sometime this year and part 3 early next year). But hey, kudos to them for a decent opening weekend, proving that this IP still has some pull (it actually opened higher than Prey at Night did, in a pre-pandemic, pre-“everything is on VOD in three weeks” world). So at least the next chapters are coming out to an audience that might actually want to see them, though I think they’ll really have to offer a knockout part 2 for anyone to still be interested by the time part 3 comes along.

What say you?

*It seems this section of the film got reworked some, as the “cast in order of appearance” lists some people at the end who don’t actually appear. I also have to assume that they didn’t hire Richard Brake to just be in this one movie without any lines (he’s the sheriff, seen watching them at the diner and doing absolutely nothing else) and that he’ll return in the others. But if not, that means they likely re-edited the first act as well. Amusingly, if I'm right then that just makes it even more like the original, which also got overhauled in the post process. But at least there it paid off.


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